April 8, 2013
By Morgan Brunner
What’s the deal with the zero fret found on some Gretsch guitars? What is it, why is it there and what does it do?
A “zero fret” is an extra fret located directly in front of the nut. You don’t often see them these days, although they were once fairly commonplace. Regarded today as an antiquated feature, they nonetheless still appear on a small number of instruments as an item of vintage-style authenticity.
Nonetheless, a zero fret isn’t merely a cosmetic touch—it does serve a subtle purpose appreciated by discerning players. In effect, it takes over the role of the nut in determining string height above the fingerboard. A zero fret can even out string action even more uniformly than the nut.
It’s easy to understand how the zero fret achieves this. On most guitars and basses, the nut serves as the anchor point for the vibrating length of the string at that end of the instrument (the bridge saddles serving the same function at the other end of the instrument) and as the string “spacer.”
The slots cut into the nut are of a generally uniform depth, but there can be very slight variations, which in turn produce very slight variations in the height of each individual string above the fingerboard. Guitarists with a discerning fretting hand feel may be able to detect such small variances.
The zero fret eliminates these variances and uniformly evens out string height even more finely because all the strings rest on it as they pass over it, with the nut relegated solely to its role of spacing the strings apart evenly across the width of the fingerboard.
Because it is the anchor point for the vibrating length of the strings, the zero fret sits slightly higher than the other frets. Further, the zero fret is placed where the nut would normally be, with the nut moved back slightly from its customary position.
Some guitarists even contend that they can detect a tonal difference between standard and zero-fret guitars because the zero fret makes the tone of open strings sound more like that of fretted notes. This is best illustrated by chords containing combinations of open and fretted notes, such as most first-position chords. When you play such chords on a standard (non-zero fret) guitar, some notes are open strings resting in the nut and other notes are fretted with the fingers. On a guitar with a zero fret, however, all the notes in any chord are “fretted” since even the “open” strings rest atop the zero fret.
Take a first-position open G chord, for example. The chord consists of two fretted G notes and an open G note, a fretted B note and an open B note, and an open D note. On a guitar with a zero fret, all six notes can be considered “fretted” since even the “open” D, B and G notes rest on the zero fret.
Gretsch didn’t invent the zero fret (its origins—likely European—are unclear), nor was it the only instrument manufacturer to use it; makers including Höfner, Kay, Selmer and others offered zero-fret instruments.
As with many other developments in its original electric guitar era, Gretsch adopted the zero fret sometime around 1959 at the behest of the great Chet Atkins, who was forever in search of improved tone and feel. Billed in Gretsch’s typically colorful marketing copy of the time as the “Action-flow fret nut,” the zero fret appeared on several high-end Gretsch models and remained in use until 1981.
In Gretsch’s modern era, the zero fret was revived for several guitars, almost all of them Chet Atkins models. Currently, Gretsch guitars equipped with a zero fret include the G6128T-1962 Duo Jet™, G6122-1962 and G6122-1959 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, G6122-12 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman 12-String, G6119-1962FT and G6119-1962HT Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose™, G6120DC Chet Atkins Nashville®, the G5191BK Tim Armstrong Signature Electromatic Hollow Body and the G7593T Billy Duffy White Falcon™.